Is Lester Holt Losing The 6:30 News Ratings Battle?

Lester Holt is sitting in for Brian Williams for six months. He’s still at No. 1, but ABC’s David Muir is closing the gap.

Can soul-battered NBC News catch a break or what?

On Tuesday morning, the latest Nielsen ratings were released for the scandal-plagued Nightly News program—which suspended tall tale-telling Brian Williams and replaced him on six-month trial basis with just-the-facts-ma’am Lester Holt—and the numbers were ominous.

A mere week after the Peacock Network’s embattled news division president, Deborah Turness, led the staff in raucous applause for Holt’s consistent week-to-week performance at No. 1 since being thrust behind the anchor desk on Feb. 9, ABC’s World News Tonight anchor David Muir came within 11,000 total viewers and actually beat Holt in the key 25-54 age demographic.

Incoming NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, who’ll attempt to right the second-place Today show and revive the ratings-challenged MSNBC cable outlet, will also have his work cut out for him stabilizing the flagship newscast—which may or may not have hit an iceberg last week.

The folks rooting for the 55-year-old Holt—a popular, respected figure at NBC as well as the first African-American to solo-anchor any broadcast network’s weeknight newscast—would argue that the problem is transitory and would have us blame Germany, the country that invented daylight saving time as a fuel-saving measure during World War I.

According to the Teutonic Time-Shifting Theory, all three 6:30 p.m. network newscasts lose significant viewership when it stays light outside later. But NBC is supposedly disadvantaged disproportionately because its audience is more prosperous and suburban, given to lovely sunset bike rides and mint juleps on the veranda—while ABC’s audience is weighted toward a less affluent, more “urban,” indoorsy demographic.

Of course, the Teutonic Time-Shifting Theory is not universally accepted, and some observers suggest that it was concocted by a dummkopf.

“It has always been the case that viewership is harmed by daylight savings, but this is the first time I’ve heard that it’s not blanket across the day parts, and that one network is harmed more than the other networks,” said television news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “That’s a new wrinkle.”

Tongue-in-cheek, Tyndall added: “I’m not buying the idea that the Krauts have a disproportionate animus against NBC.”

If there’s any silver lining for Holt—if not for NBC News—it’s that the emergence of ABC’s World News Tonight is not a sudden phenomenon, but instead has been gradually developing over the past year, during most of which Williams has been anchoring Nightly.

The Nielsens for the week ending March 13 put NBC at 8.131 million total viewers, compared to ABC’s 8.120 million, but ABC scored a 1.70 rating in the all-important 25-54 demographic (on which advertising rates are set), compared with NBC’s 1.64 rating in the key demo.

More significant, however, is that the statistics reflect a substantial tightening from the same period a year ago, when NBC was beating ABC by more than a million total viewers, and by 172,000 viewers in the demo. Since David Muir took over the World News Tonight anchor job from Diane Sawyer last fall, ABC has continued to catch up, actually adding to its audience while NBC has been losing eyeballs.

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“I would say that the race is now definitely neck-and-neck for Number One,” Tyndall told The Daily Beast. “The actual difference in the numbers is very small—probably within the margin of error...But this is a six-month experiment to see whether Nightly News can survive in first place, and during this period some previously loyal viewers can be expected to sample elsewhere, and there’s bound to be a lot of churn.”